Charlie Mitchell

Minor chose to tell Mississippi’s story, and tell it well

The phone rang.

“Chah-lie? Bill Minor. Listen. You got that all wrong.”

This is my 31st year. Back in 1986, when I asked colleagues around the state if there was room for another opinion columnist, more than one encouraged me to chime in, candidly adding Minor “couldn’t last much longer.”

Well, he did.

More than three decades longer. Plenty long enough to let me know when I got something right or, more memorably, when I didn’t.

As we all know, Wilson F. Minor, who died last week at 94, was the venerable dean of Mississippi journalism in 1957, 1967, 1977 ….

His mind held more first-person detail of this state’s history — specifically its social and political wrangling — than any other, and his gift of recall was without parallel.

That phone call?

If memory serves — and mine is no match for his — I had referred to a provision in the state’s 1890 Constitution, perhaps as it related to casino development. Minor told me my interpretation was wrong and explained why it was wrong. I was chagrined, of course, and wanted to ask him if his views were based on being in the room when the document was written, but I didn’t. He was the dean, after all. Respect.

Minor was as generous with his compliments as he was with his corrections. Through the years, I would get calls or notes when he felt a necessary observation had been made, adequately supported by fact.

It’s not clear why the times he was ticked off bubble up, but they do. Not too many years ago in a column about how elections can be structured, I mentioned Mississippi had once “flirted” with a primary system similar to Louisiana’s. I thought “flirted” was a fine word, given that the state never actually used nonpartisan primaries (except in judicial voting), but “flirting” gave Minor apoplexy. He devoted his entire next column to explaining why “flirting” was the wrong word. Called me out by name.

Perhaps it’s perverse, but it was kind of an honor to be taken to the verbal woodshed in such a public way by Bill.

Of course, there were times when Minor made mistakes. They weren’t mistakes of memory, but in stringing things together. His detractors — and they were legion — seized upon his mistakes as proof of incompetence. A reality in this business is readers are skeptical (which is a good thing) and an error in a date, a name or even grammar becomes amplified to the point that the writer’s entire body of work is unjustly discredited.

Anyway, I can’t think about Minor without remembering the tongue-in-cheek description of a newspaper journalist written by New York Herald Tribune city editor Stanley Walker about the time Minor was born:

“What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He is aware not only of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

“He is not only handsome, but he has the physical strength which enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go for nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him; women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him.

“He hates lies, meanness and sham but keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and to what he looks upon as his profession; whether it is a profession or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debase it.

“When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.”

Two portions of that description resonate for Minor. The first is energy. Most tributes have appropriately recalled his big stories, but most journalism is, well, mundane. Covering politics and the Legislature is not for people who want a thrill-a-minute life. More significantly, Minor worked diligently to expose officials who played the public for suckers. He was the bane of two-faced suits of any political stripe because he would tell his readers what they had said and how it didn’t fit with what they did. Those who didn’t practice what they preached knew Bill Minor was a reporter to avoid. Truth-tellers had nothing to fear. Importantly, he also rode herd on the state’s media.

As for the “several days” part, I have to believe Minor will be remembered much longer, especially by those of us he inspired. For generations, he held up a mirror to Mississippi, and invited us to make it better.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.

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